December 22, 2006

Zogby: Bill O'Reilly's Bitches?

In yesterday's "Numbers Guy" column, Carl Bialik reported that a Zogby online survey found that nearly a third of Americans are offended when a store clerk wishes them "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas." The story was duly picked up by Reuters and a number of papers, blogs, and web sites, particularly those who see retailers' use of the more ecumenical greeting as a sign of anti-Christian persecution by "secular crusaders who want to neuter Christmas" with the ultimate aim of driving Christianity from the public square.

But some eyebrows went up at the wording of the survey item:

Are you very offended, somewhat offended, or not at all offended when a store clerk wishes you a Happy Holiday instead of a Merry Christmas?

As Mark Blumenthal, the author of the estimable Mystery Pollster blog, pointed out to Bialik, "Before you even have heard the subject, before you're asked to process the information, you've been asked three times whether you are offended." Blumenthal added that results were stacked still more by the "asymmetric" format that provides two answers for people who are offended and only one for the people who aren't. (Compare: "Do you find George Bush to be incredibly arrogant, moderately arrogant, or not arrogant at all?") Indeed, it's hard to believe that a third of Americans would have answered yes if the question had been put in a genuinely neutral form like "Do you mind when a store clerk wishes you 'Happy Holidays'?"

Zogby spokesman Fritz Wenzel defended the item: "Zogby International stands by the methodology and results of its polling." But Wenzel and the Zogby people had to know perfectly well how the language of the query would skew the results -- the literature on these linguistic priming effects in polling is extensive, to put it mildly.

If there was any doubt of that, in fact, the Zogby people put it to rest when they included another, even more blatantly loaded item on the same survey: "Are you extremely bothered, somewhat bothered, or not at all bothered by stores that try to be politically correct by wishing customers a Happy Holiday out of fear of offending those who do not celebrate Christmas?" That could serve as a textbook example of a push poll question, whose point is to shape attitudes rather than record them -- if you equate any solicitude for the sensibilities of Jewish, Muslim, or nonbeliever customers with "political correctness," it's no wonder that 51 percent of respondents will answer with "extremely bothered" or "somewhat bothered."

So there's no question these items were intentionally designed to produce a result that would play in the media's familiar "war on Christmas" template and earn the press coverage that leads pollsters to do unsponsored surveys on items like this in the first place.

In fact the questions underscore the specious grammar of "offense" that the right has appropriated from the language of civil rights in order to cultivate a sense of grievance and victimization among its constituencies. You could hear that in the way many in the media contrasted the "happy holidays" result with another Zogby query that showed that 95 percent of respondents said they were not offended when they were greeted by "Merry Christmas" greeting from clerks. As Zogby put it in its December newsletter:

The greetings war heated up last year with many stores opting out of saying "Merry Christmas" for fear of offending customers, opting for the more generic "Happy Holiday." That fear may be unfounded, as our polling shows 95% of respondents say they are not at all offended when a clerk wishes them a "Merry Christmas" -- and only 1% of respondents said they are very offended at that greeting. It may be not saying "Merry Christmas" that is the real offender -- 32% say they are offended when a clerk says "Happy Holiday" and half (51%) say they are bothered by stores trying to be politically correct by using that greeting.

Or as the Christian Post headed its story about the poll: "More Americans Offended by 'Happy Holidays' than 'Merry Christmas.'" Other writers downplayed the objections of Jews, Muslims, and nonbelievers -- note the selective use of only in an article on the Zogby survey in the Baltimore Examiner:

According to a new report from Zogby International, a New York-based opinion research firm, 32 percent of shoppers are offended when a clerk wishes someone "Happy Holidays," while only 5 percent take offense to "Merry Christmas."

. . . Only 32 percent of those polled who identified themselves as Jewish said they took offense to being wished a “Merry Christmas,” with the same going for only 10 percent who identified themselves as non-Christian.

But the "offense" that some Christians report on not being greeted in a way that presupposes they're Christians isn't quite the same sense of injury that some non-Christians might feel when they hear a greeting that does. Or to put it another way, it's one thing to feel offended when a clerk doesn't automatically give pride of place to your religion and another to feel offended when he or she automatically gives pride of place to somebody else's. A generation ago, in fact, nobody would have used "offend" in the first situation at all, much less described the use of "happy holidays" as "insulting to Christian America," the way Bill O'Reilly does. But that was before the culture warriors learned to use the bogus parallelism of "offensiveness" to depict a business's effort to respectfully acknowledge the religious heterogeneity of its clientele as an instance of "discrimination" and "bias" against a Christian majority.

The "War on Christmas" crowd seems to be winning this battle -- over the past year or two, a number of chains, like Wal-Mart, have announced that they'll be returning to the "Merry Christmas" greeting. Still, things aren't about to return to an age of Frank Capra innocence -- for a lot of people, a salutation that used to be merely a cheerful (if sometimes casually insensitive) nod to the seasonal spirit has become a belligerent salvo in the culture wars. That's disturbing even to many thoughtful conservatives. As National Review's Jonah Goldberg noted last year:

Just as it is counterproductive for a secular liberal to take offense at a well-intentioned "Merry Christmas," it doesn't help if a conservative says "Merry Christmas" when he really means "Eat yuletide, you atheistic bastard!"

Indeed, non-Christians aren't the only ones who find the whole flap a little disturbing. As the conservative columnist Cal Thomas observed:

The effort by some cable TV hosts and ministers to force commercial establishments into wishing everyone a "Merry Christmas" might be more objectionable to the One who is the reason for the season than the "Happy Holidays" mantra required by some store managers.

Still, those theological scruples aren't likely to move either the culture warriors or the pollsters who find it expedient to pander to them. In which connection, I offer the first annual LanguageLog Holiday Reader Survey:

How disturbing do you find Zogby International's willingness to trash its reputation for disinterested and scientifically responsible survey design in order to score a few lines of cheap media coverage?

A. They disgust me.

B. Sluts!

C. I'm rather disappointed.

D. Hey, no problemo.

Operators are standing by. Have a happy whatever.

Added 12/23: In an email, Lal Zimman writes:

What's always really gotten to me about this entire debate is that even Christians generally celebrate more than one holiday around this time. Don't these folks want to have a happy New Year too? Or are we only allowed one happy holiday each year?

Actually, that underscores another odd feature of the Zogby survey question:

Are you very offended, somewhat offended, or not at all offended when a store clerk wishes you a Happy Holiday instead of a Merry Christmas?

"Happy Holiday"??? When was the last time you heard anybody say that greeting in the singular? But by ignoring the fact that the word "holidays" is invariably in the plural, the item precludes the conclusion that the greeting is intended to cover New Years, as well. You have to wonder: if Zogby will go to these lengths to load an item just to get some free ink, what wouldn't they do to accommodate a paying sponsor?

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at December 22, 2006 10:39 PM